The birth of 'Hamilton,' told by the man who was in the room where it happened
In May 2009, my friend Jeremy McCarter made me sit down and watch a video of the now-famous rendition Lin-Manuel Miranda gave at the White House of the opening song of “Hamilton.” At the time, the song was all that existed of the show, and its first performance took place in front of Barack and Michelle Obama. (The president later suggested that he should get a Tony along with the “Hamilton” producers, since the show had begun its development at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.)
The song pierced me, thrilled me and converted me. I had been completely oblivious to the size and scope of Lin’s genius, and in 4 minutes and 32 seconds I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers. It was immediately apparent that Lin had hit upon a subject and a form that were brilliantly suited to each other…
Years before “Hamilton” opened at the Public on Feb. 17, 2015, I had been comparing Lin to Shakespeare. Each of them took the language of the common people and elevated it into verse, thereby ennobling both the language and the characters who spoke it. They both told the founding stories of their nation in a way that recognized everyone, of all classes, as citizens. They both employed a freedom of form that was exhilarating and masterful.
But Shakespeare and Lin also refused to be completely pinned down, leaving their narratives open to interpretation and constantly renewed debate. Leaving them, in short, entirely human.
Lin gathered around him an amazing group of collaborators, each of whom was essential to this show.
Alex Lacamoire, orchestrator and music director, the curly-haired cherub I saw at the piano in that first clip of Lin at the White House, is not only a brilliant musician but a deeply loving collaborator. He shares so much musical DNA with Lin that he was able to express all the diverse musical influences of the music while always making it feel like one score.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography adds a dimension to Hamilton that I’ve never seen before — a form of abstract but profound narrative that continually supports and enhances the story. His dancing dramaturgy would become a profound piece of the show.
Jeffrey Seller is the commercial producer who has been attached to Lin and his work for Lin’s entire career. I would come to treasure Jeffrey as a partner: His brilliant commercial instincts were matched by his deep commitment to supporting the show in becoming the best possible version of itself.
And guiding the entire ship was Tommy Kail, Lin’s friend, fellow Wesleyan graduate and the director of “Hamilton.” It was with wonderment and awe that I watched Tommy direct. I have never seen a director more able to inspire the best possible work from everyone around him, more willing to let the best idea win in any debate, more able to lead from vision and principle. He is a miracle.
Obviously, there were many other vital contributors to this show, but it was these four, along with Lin himself, who were the leadership. I was privileged to be among them.
“Hamilton” is a brilliant musical, and a brilliantly entertaining one. But it is more than that because it was created by the huge and generous hearts of the artists who made it, most of all Lin himself. Broadway musical numbers, hip-hop and Beatle-esque ballads all seem to belong together, because they are all things Lin loves. In that way, the form of this amazing musical manifests the egalitarian angels of this country. It doesn’t just speak of a nation where we all belong; it creates it onstage. May it inspire all of us to make our country as good as “Hamilton.”